Originally Published in the Daily Herald, January, 2022
I recall explaining to my daughters when they were younger that a public-school education was valuable, but for only one thing: making you a good worker. It’s important. It’s noble and worthwhile. But it does not make a citizen. It takes much more than that. What some might call “classical education” has always included other things like art, civics, religion, logic and…virtue.
Too dangerous to teach?
An understanding of virtue and the underlying concepts of virtue aren’t obvious in any formal educational settings I’m aware of because, I’m guessing, it’s too partisan and doesn’t turn a profit. Maybe I’m wrong on that (in fact, I’m sure I am) but my point is that training in virtue is not automatic in our society.
There is no universally accepted index of virtues. Benjamin Franklin created his own list. The Greeks batted around various lists numbering from 4 to 18. Eastern thinkers like Confucius had varying catalogues, and there are countless others. It’s interesting how much overlap there is between these lists, regardless of origin. It seems that the raw materials which compose “virtues” are universal and acknowledged by all people as a need like food, water, and shelter.
In our context, however, virtues (when addressed at all) are addressed indirectly. A result is that the Tree of Virtues has been pruned down to two stubby, bare branches: Compassion and Freedom. Virtues like Wisdom, Patience and Moderation lie decaying on the ground having been cut away in favor of the remaining two.
The unintended result of favoring any virtue over others is to slowly transform the chosen virtue into a vice. Virtues cannot exist as virtues apart from the others. A net ceases to be a net when you cut away all but one strand. What is salt if it loses its “saltiness” after all?
“…if the salt loses it’s saltiness, how can it be made salty again?” Matthew 5:13
Freedom with no companion virtues mutates into hatred. Ever-so-slowly, those who don’t seem to value freedom as highly as we think they should, become “other”, then, “stranger”, then “threat” and finally “enemy”. All in support of freedom.
Compassion quarantined from other virtues deviates toward tyranny. Neighbors who refuse what we define as help are seen first as “ingrates”, then “ignorant”, then “threat” and finally “enemy”. All in support of compassion.
When we choose one virtue above all others, we cannot see ANY virtue in the position of the other who has chosen a different favorite. Hope for dialogue or unity quickly fades.
The reality of this is revealed in the strange phenomenon of propaganda from both camps becoming interchangeable. If you find the slogan of your sole virtue has, strangely, been adopted by your enemy and is now trumpeted back at you, you should pause and reflect.
I long to see how my anti-vaccine-mandate friends would behave if their commitment to freedom were equaled by a commitment to temperance. And how lovely would our community become if our social justice warriors blended some humility with their compassion. I will try to grow my courage and my patience as I wait for this.